Baby, You can drive my (art) car

"Vehicle of Enlightenment" by Susan Jett. Photo: Greg Nett

"Vehicle of Enlightenment" by Susan Jett. Photo: Greg Nett

“All of us in one way or another are personalizing our own world,” Art Car artist Greg (“Grego”) Nett explained. “Some wear sport sweaters, others wear pins or have bumper stickers. Whatever it is that symbolizes an alliance or something of deep interest in our lives, we want to show the world who we are … In the Art Car world, a person’s identity is expressed in his car.”’

Grego’s story represents the path of thousands of artists who have a love affair with Art Cars and share an imperative to transform the “mundane” (as they refer to regular cars) into veritable works of art.

According to Grego, there are three categories of Art Car:

  1. A car that has been decorated or artistically altered and is “street legal,” which means able to be driven on a street.

  2. A “mutant vehicle,” the type of Art Car allowed at Burning Man that isn’t street legal and where the standards are so high that you literally can’t see anything but the art.

  3. A “parade vehicle,” which is used only in parades and is usually smaller in stature and built on wheelchairs or elderly scooters.

"Vehicle of Enlightenment" by Susan Jett. Photo: Greg NettGreg "Grego" Nett with first steampunk inspired art car, a 1997 Toyota T100. Photo: Greg Nett

"Vehicle of Enlightenment" by Susan Jett. Photo: Greg NettGreg "Grego" Nett with first steampunk inspired art car, a 1997 Toyota T100. Photo: Greg Nett

The modern “Art Car” has roots in the 1960s, as inspired by lowriders as well as the Merry Pranksters, followers of the author Ken Kesey, in their psychedelically painted school bus “Furthur,” as well as by John Lennon with his paisley-covered Rolls Royce. Artists like Larry Fuente, Jackie Harris, and David Best were at the forefront of this movement, and the Art Car was featured in various books and movies, most notably those of filmmaker and artist, Harrod Blank.

By the 1990s, Burning Man brought the Art Car to a new level of artistic appreciation. Deep in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the annual gathering offers a unique venue where mutant vehicles could be on display for its participants, currently numbering over 70,000.

Grego’s artistic desire to modify his 1997 Toyota T100 truck into an Art Car came after he retired from running his own mobile DJ business for thirty years. Other than writing “Star Mobile Sound” on the side, the only decoration he allowed himself was a sticker of a wizard shooting musical notes from his wand. Now, his passion could express itself.

Having worked as an artist designing jewelry and stained glass, Grego’s new artistic pursuit became a mandate after he saw a TV interview on “Around the Bay.” One of the hosts was being chauffeured in an art car named “Whirly Squirrely,” created by the artist Tré Taylor. It was painted with swirls and had pinwheels and ceramic garden squirrels attached to it. The roof and interior were covered in fur, which made it feel like sitting inside a kangaroo pouch.

“My heart was pounding with excitement. ‘I should do that someday,’ I said to myself. And then I realized, there was nothing stopping me now. I could make my truck into whatever I wanted it to be.”

Grego had created several designs over the years, which he had committed to memory or drawn in sketchbooks. He culled ideas from them and surveyed his house for objects that might prove interesting for his Art Car. He wondered whether his creation should have a non-specific theme that would express itself in a variety of ways, or one single thematic expression that informs the whole Art Car, such as artist Costas Schuler’s old Mercedes covered in pens, aptly named “Mercedes Pens”.

"Mercedes Pens" by Costa Schuler. Photo: Greg Nett

"Mercedes Pens" by Costa Schuler. Photo: Greg Nett

Grego attached items to his truck to make it look “scientific”, having been inspired heavily by Steampunk. He created wings out of Venetian blinds and put them on the sides. He took a ceramics class to learn how to make the structures he wanted, changed the square little passenger window into a porthole. And he began attaching copper objects, seeking the familiar under the theory that “brains are stimulated by those things that we recognize.”

To that end, his truck boasts: a woman at a computer (made of nuts and bolts), biplanes, a space-aged sheriff (“that’s my security system,” Grego laughed), Robby the Robot, a cut-off drain pipe, several dragons, and interlocking wire strands— all topped with a miniature crystal ball that sits on the middle of the hood to lend a futuristic look. “It just built itself,” he said.

It was through the Art Car community that Grego met Sherry Tobin, a mosaic artist and Art Car artist who lived in Vallejo, California. She looked at his spectacular car and said, “Where have you been?!” She invited him to sell his steampunk jewelry in her backyard. He happily agreed and eventually became part of the Vallejo Art Car Coalition that Sherry and other Vallejoans founded in 2015, followed by the Art Car Jam in 2016. The groups aimed to inspire people to transform their everyday cars into art.  

Through Sherry, Grego met Art Car artists Kathy and Shannon O’Hare, who invited Grego to put some of his jewelry and other artwork in their shop, Obtainium Works, “the home base of the Hibernian Academy of UnNatural Sciences … an on-going Do It Yourself (DIY) group of tinkerers, gearheads, and steam bohemians who fabricate art out of repurposed industrial detritus,” as they describe it on their website. Obtainium Works is open on Sundays to all artists who want to come, collaborate and help build Art Cars. It’s the birthplace of many vehicles that have been designed for events including the Mad Hatter Parade, where a group of wacky vehicles cruise downtown Vallejo over the holidays.

Sherry Tobin's "Ladybug" - part art car, part mobile gallery. Photo: Greg Nett

Sherry Tobin's "Ladybug" - part art car, part mobile gallery. Photo: Greg Nett

Not only cars, but the city of Vallejo has been transformed in recent years. It was the first California city to go bankrupt during the recession, and artists like them who couldn’t afford the high rents of the Bay Area flocked there. Thanks to people like Sherry, Kathy, Shannon, Frank and other prominent artists it is now thriving. Part of its endearing appeal involves its art and the way the community shares the whimsy of ideas as embodied in Art Cars — from Sherry’s Ladybug, built on her 1973 Boler trailer (which doubles as an art gallery and brings her “happiness all day long”) to the astounding vehicles created at Obtainium Works.

When Shannon first met Kathy, he was designing a three-story Victorian house on tank treads and, although immediately in love with her, warned, “I can’t get involved with you, because I have a mistress: a 24-foot-tall, 24-foot-long, 12-foot wide vehicle!” Their first jointly created Art Car was the Never Was Haul, a fully operational carriage with a steam driven engine that took around 25 people to build.

“Normally Art Cars destroy relationships,” joked Shannon. “But we created our relationship around them — and many relationships in the community too.”

“Everyone works together in the Art Car world,” Grego added. “It’s an artist’s dream, where inspiration and imagination are honored, the needs of the whole community are considered — and nothing is impossible.”

Susan Jett in her "Vehicle of Enlightenment". Photo: Greg Nett

Susan Jett in her "Vehicle of Enlightenment". Photo: Greg Nett

Words: Brooke Harris Wolff